Election 2012

Whose Votes Are Really Being Wasted?

"A wasted vote," says Gary Johnson, "is a vote for someone you don't believe in."

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“Could a truly honest politician become president?” asked The Washington Post earlier this year. Gary Johnson is offering a real-world test case.

Johnson is a two-time governor who won the Libertarian presidential nomination after being shut out of the Republican primaries. In a recent interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch Editorial Board, he said things like this: “I just find it remarkable that at the debate the other night, [Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were] debating over who’s going to spend more money on Medicare, when we need to slash Medicare spending. The alternative is no health care at all for those over 65.” Medicare is “very simply, a benefit that you and I pay $30 for and get $100 back. . . . In any way, shape or form, is that sustainable? Well, it’s not. We all know it. We all know it. And yet this was the debate that went on last week.”

So does he think we should zero out all social-welfare spending? No: “There are those that are truly in need. . . . Without government, there are no goods and services that those truly in need would be able to receive.”

Still: “We need to slash Medicare spending” is one of those uncomfortable truths no one in Washington dares to speak â€" not even would-be budget hawks such as GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose own ostensibly austere budget does not balance the books for a quarter-century.

Johnson promises to submit a balanced budget for fiscal year 2014. How?

For starters, he would cut military spending 43 percent. To Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who think government bloat does not create jobs except in the defense sector, even the looming 12-percent cut from sequestration is vastly too deep. Nonsense, says Johnson â€" who points out that a 43-percent cut would bring back Pentagon appropriations only to 2003 levels. Was the U.S. economically or military prostrate in 2003? Of course not.

True, cutting military spending might require changes in U.S. foreign policy. To Johnson, that would be a good thing. Example: He thinks the U.S. should stop threatening Iran over its nuclear program. “The largest demonstration in the world in support of the United States after 9/11 was in Iran, in Tehran,” he told the newspaper. “Over a million Iranian citizens showed up in support of the United States. And we’re going to bomb Iran? We’re going to make ourselves another hundred million enemies [if we do].”

The answer to the nuclear threat posed by the Iranian government, he says, is deterrence: “Did we bomb Russia when they were going to develop a nuclear weapon? Did we bomb China? Pakistan? India? No, we opened up trade with these countries.” Israel, he argues, “has 300 nuclear warheads” and is entirely capable of taking care of itself. If Iran were to attack Israel, then Iran’s “entire country [would] be obliterated.” But “to pull the trigger first â€" that’s what we’ve been doing. And look at the results.”

It is easy to see why Johnson is not a good fit with conservatives â€" whose candidates compete for the title of most aggressively militaristic. But neither is he a good fit for liberals  â€" who, as William Voegeli says, “don't want the government to grow indefinitely. They just want it to be bigger than it is right now.” As Johnson told Larry King in an earlier interview, he is â€" like other Libertarians â€" “fiscally responsible and socially accepting. The choices that you make in your life should be your choices, not the government’s.” He is fine with gay marriage and would legalize marijuana.

Hence, he could have an unusual effect on the election. In North Carolina and Michigan, he is siphoning votes from Romney. In Colorado and New Mexico (where he was governor), he is drawing votes from Obama. A Public Policy Polling survey last week shows him taking votes from Obama in Nevada as well. This bipartisan appeal should not come as a great surprise. The Democratic critique of Republican social policies is that they are insufficiently libertarian. That is also the Republican critique of Democratic economic policies.

Unfortunately for Johnson, each party also thinks the other party can be too libertarian â€" Republicans on economics, Democrats on social policy. He also faces the third-party Catch-22: He doesn’t get much media coverage because he doesn’t have much popular support â€" which he cannot get without media coverage.

Besides, many people do not want to vote for someone who cannot win. A vote for a third-party candidate, they think, is a wasted vote. Johnson disagrees. “A wasted vote,” he says, “is a vote for someone you don’t believe in.” By that standard, millions of Republicans and Democrats will be throwing their votes away on Nov. 6. Johnson voters â€" what few there are â€" will not.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.